Hank’s (and Rob Harmon’s) recommendations 10/01/13

hank_paperHANK’S PICKS 10/01/13:

THIS IS THE END — In many of the massively popular films (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, KNOCKED UP, SUPERBAD, 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, 21 JUMP STREET, to name a few) of Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson, everything outside of their dope-imbibing, self-centered, immature lives can go to hell, and that’s exactly—literally—what happens in this funny parody of both horror films and the celebrity life style.

With the entire cast of young recently “made” actors (including Emily Watson and Rihanna) playing themselves at a huge party at James Franco’s architecturally overstated house, Rogan and Robinson take a walk down the block for cigarettes and suddenly witness the Apocalypse arrive.

Amid the ravaged, burning ruins of LA, the six friends wind up taking refuge in Franco’s house, rationing water and foie gras, fighting demons and, above all, testing their “off screen” sybaritic friendships among hilariously dire adversity. Even Mrs. Video, who doesn’t like horror films or lame comedies, found this film funny and entertaining.

Oddly, it reminded me of an otherwise totally dissimilar movie, THE TRIP, wherein Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, also playing themselves in a supposedly true off-screen friendship, make a tour of Britain’s Lake District to review high end B & B food for The Observer. This very funny and picturesque movie (though not, perhaps, as picturesque as LA in ruins) winds up being, through a battle of competing comedic riffs and impersonations, a parody of the stand up comedic life style.

Is Reality TV now taking over the movie theater? If so, it’s better than anything on the small tube.

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’S PICKS 10/01/13

LE QUATTRO VOLTE (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010)

It is no secret that as American moviegoers we heavily rely on a film’s plot in deciding its overall worth. There are two sins which outweigh all others in regards to film: a plot which is confusing, contains holes, or does not add up, and one which meanders or does not seem to go anywhere quickly—one which is, in other words, boring.

Unfortunately, for many American moviegoers the latter charge of “boring” is usually the death knell of a film, allowing for the marginalization of much of what might be called art house fare, and meaning that our mainstream commercial cinema is increasingly fast-paced, trivial, specious, and muscular: seemingly amped-up on steroids and out-of-control. The cultural stigmatization of “boring” movies means that many never give a chance to films which test their patience and the poetic boundaries of the medium, dismissing them out of hand.  Boredom at the movies, in other words, is the pits—nay, it is downright un-American!—and most would avoid it like the plague.

Yet, there is a style and vein of modern cinema which requires a greater attention span on the part of the viewer. Just think of the films of Ozu, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Bergman, and Dreyer, or, more recently, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, Kelly Reichardt, Bella Tarr, and Claire Denis. Through long, lingering takes and a slow and steady editing pace, these films challenge the viewer in order to reveal something more about the human condition—either beautiful or ugly—and, perhaps ultimately, something of a spiritual or ephemeral nature. Though the “cinema of patience” appears too artsy and out-of-reach for many moviegoers there are handsome dividends to be found here, and arguably some of the greatest adventures in film. (Although I will equally argue the importance of genre filmmaking, as will become apparent as we get further into October and I begin to write more on a subject near and dear to my heart: the much-maligned horror film!)

(which translates to “The Four Times”) is a gauzy and poetic evocation of the cycles of death and life which permeate a remote mountain village in the Calabria region of Italy and its immediate environs. An old man, a goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda), makes his living off of the land. He becomes sick and then dies, but his death is far from the end of the film but a beginning, of sorts, as the camera continues to follow the streams of life, not just for human beings, but for all that is around us… even in the air we breathe and under our feet.

Frammartino has the kind of unerring and unflinching eye necessary to pull this kind of material off. The cinematography, editing, and sound design are all first-rate. The film’s greatest set piece is an 8-minute wonder of a shot wherein we witness the entropy and fall-out from the goat herder’s death: as a Passion Play—complete with Roman soldiers and a Cross-bearing Jesus—marches through the town’s streets the man’s loyal herding dog yaps at passersby, ultimately and unwittingly setting off a chain of events which results in the liberation of the bleating goat herd from their pen—free, at last, to roam the streets unmolested. This amazing shot patiently pans back-and-forth to document the action, its viewpoint both placid and remote as it observes these strange goings-on from a distance high above. A similar quietness permeates many other shots in the film, such as the erecting of an enormous tree in the town’s square for a festival, seen from an immense distance, with rooftops in the foreground and mountains in the back, as though to provide a proper scale for the significance (or insignificance) of human events in nature.

At 88 minutes the movie chugs along but never races to the finish, its ending as calm and effortless as its beginning and middle, and as satisfying.

SAMSARA (dir. Ron Fricke, 2011)

Samsara is the latest effort from director Ron Fricke and his writing collaborator and producer Mark Magidson, the team responsible for 1992’s hypnotic BARAKA, a rhythmically-edited exploration of patterns of life across the planet and a film positively suffused with the textures of Buddhist philosophy. Samsara follows in the stylistic footsteps of its predecessor but may be filled with even more of a sense of wonder and dread, more of the desire to gaze at the world around us and to be overwhelmed.

Though ostensibly a documentary of the National Geographic or IMAX variety Samsara has just as much in common with the avant-garde “urban symphonies” of the 1920’s, such as Walter Ruttmann’s BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929)—silent pictures which were made at a heady moment in the development of the medium, when editing practices were being pushed to the extreme.

Editing rhythms are all-important in Samsara, with no scientific claptrap or voice-over by an overpaid Oscar-winning actor to hamper the flow, the camera merely set up in such a way as to record the action. Though “recording” here hardly does credit to the lush cinematography, by Fricke himself, which was done in 70mm before being transferred to digital, resulting in a remarkably crisp and clear image. The music by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello De Francisci is appropriately somber and cyclical, helping to drive the action forward even as it forms a fitting counterpoint to the images on screen.

There is no linear story here, as one would traditionally define it, with images and sounds simply washing over the viewer, and themes and storylines slowly and methodically emerging from the well-edited-chaos. The subjects, as with Baraka, are varied and rich, and perhaps even more so than the earlier film: female Balinese dancers, the great pyramids at Giza, Buddhist temples in the Myanmar landscape, a firearms company and a prison in the Philippines, the Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a favela in São Paulo, a martial arts academy in China, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and numerous factories and cityscapes the world over, just to name a few.

Few films can claim to have the scope of life itself and really mean it; Samsara is one such movie. If its sights and sounds can occasionally create sensations of unease or dizziness in the viewer, at other times it can elicit feelings of a very human type: recognition. Samsara is like a mirror.

Film screening: “Saving Hubble” on Mon., June 10, at 7:30 PM

Saving_Hubble_poster72dpiDirector David Gaynes will screen and discuss his documentary “Saving Hubble” at the Best Video Performance Space on Monday, June 10, starting at 7:30 PM.  Admission for this screening is $5.

The film is about the successful effort to save and repair the space telescope and how that complex piece of equipment connects humans to the wider universe. Gaynes has been showing the film as part of his “Hubble Roadshow,” events that often include panel discussions about related issues and—weather conditions permitting—post-screening star viewing through the telescopes of amateur astronomers.

David Gaynes is a documentary filmmaker and cameraman. “Saving Hubble” tells the story of the fight to keep the Hubble Space Telescope alive during a complicated period in NASA (and American) history. David is drawing world-wide attention for “Saving Hubble”‘s grassroots, ad-hoc distribution campaign, affectionately titled the Hubble Roadshow. He is also finishing a new documentary feature about a pilgrimage to Israel taken by a group of nursing home residents, currently titled “Next Year in Jerusalem.” David was the cinematographer of the recent award-winning documentary feature “All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert” (Dir. Vivian Ducat). In 2005, he won multiple festival awards for his debut documentary feature “Keeper of the Kohn,” which explored the life and challenges of Peter Kohn, the 70-year old waterboy of the Middlebury College Lacrosse Team. David lives in New York City, making a living on a mix of income from film projects and freelance camera and directorial work.

From a 2012 review of “Saving Hubble” by Jeff Foust for The Space Review:

One of the more remarkable grassroots space advocacy efforts of the last decade was the public response to NASA’s plans in 2004 to cancel the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. The overwhelmingly negative reaction to that decision transcended the usual narrow communities of space activists into the general public, overshadowing the debate about the future of NASA’s human spaceflight plans—the Vision for Space Exploration—that was taking place at the same time. Those lobbying efforts paid off: in 2006 NASA reversed its earlier decision, electing to carrying out the servicing mission, which the STS-125 shuttle crew carried out successfully in May 2009.

“Saving Hubble” does provide some history about the telescope, charting the highs and lows, such as the reaction to its optical aberration discovered shortly after launch to the successful repairs of the telescope and the imagery it’s produced. The bulk of the film, though, is about the decision by then-NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe to cancel the final Hubble servicing mission, and the reaction by both astronomers and the public. The film features interviews with some of the scientists and engineers involved with Hubble and journalists who covered it, but it also includes a broad cross-section of the public as well, talking about Hubble and what it means to them. Gaynes casts a wide net here, from a gregarious taxicab driver in Nashville to high school athletes and cheerleaders in Kansas to even the commercial spaceflight pioneers working at Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

View the trailer for “Saving Hubble”:

Film on the Hubble Space Telescope to be screened Mon., June 10

Director David Gaynes will screen and discuss his documentary “Saving Hubble” at the Best Video Performance Space on Monday, June 10, starting at 7:30 PM.  The film is about the successful effort to save and repair the space telescope and how that complex piece of equipment connects humans to the wider universe. Gaynes has been showing the film as part of his “Hubble Roadshow,” events that often include panel discussions about related issues and—weather conditions permitting—post-screening star viewing through the telescopes of amateur astronomers.

We will post more information about this event closer to the date. In the meantime, view the trailer for “Saving Hubble”:

Hank’s Recommendations 04/02/13

hank_paperWHAT SUSHI MEANS

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI — ….as, indeed, so many of us do. But Jiro’s dreams will touch many of us deeply who do not dream of crustaceans and finny friends of the deep finding their way to our palate’s and brain’s nerve centers.

This is an umami of a documentary.

Filmed in Tokyo, the city most populous with sushi provenders, restaurants and bars, this is the story of 85-year-old Jiro who, after 70 years as a sushi purveyor, still awakens many nights from a dream of sushi with an idea for his restaurant: a ten seat sushi bar that has repeatedly been granted three Michelin stars.

Jiro’s sushi bar does not serve drinks or appetizers or entrees—only sushi, which, for him, should be no aftermath and for which there can be no prelude. Giving his ten customers the same attention that he gives to his sushi, if he notices a person at the bar who is left-handed, that is where Jiro will place that customer’s next sushi—by his left hand.

His tasting menu, which varies each day according to what’s fresh and best at each day’s market, is like a three-part concerto: an ebb and flow of light and heavy fish (some cooked, some raw) the catch of the day and what’s seasonal. The final course, a cleansing egg sushi, alone took an apprentice two years to learn how to make at the feet (or hands) of Jiro. His two sons, bearers of his legacy, have received the hardest apprenticeship of all so that one day they can have their own sushi bars.

If you are a sushi maven this film will make you want to immediately go out and get sushi (the very best at hand). The images are aesthetically and appetizingly ravishing. But the film is more: It is also about learning a task and making a life; about the meaning of dedication and the never-ending scale of improvement; of working 75 years and trying to be better every day yet never attaining the pinnacle of perfection which lies ever ahead. It is about family and hardship and the difference among generations; about kids then and kids now; about work that is motivated by pride and accomplishment rather than money and time off. It is about posterity and conservation as opposed to short-term greed, about fish stock depletions in an age of the ubiquity of sushi—conveyer belt and supermarket and do-it-yourself sushi—where global net fishing and bottom trawlers indiscriminately take young fish along with the mature. A tuna takes ten years to grow to its100 kilogram maturity. Learning to make sushi takes a lifetime.

This film is both a lesson in life and in making a life; it is an exemplum, a cautionary tale and, above all, it is a joy.

Hank’s recommendations 03/12/13

hank_paperHITCHCOCK — Murder is so much fun in Hitchcock!

The only suspense in this thoroughly delightful, well-written and acted, film is how the aging Hitchcock, fresh off his success in NORTH BY NORTHWEST in 1959, seeks to prove he still has what it takes to be, well, Hitchcock. The vehicle he chooses to confirm his continued worth and, in fact, be fresh and current and different, is adapted from a then-current gruesome horror novel about the serial killer Ed Gein. The bestseller is called PSYCHO, displaying graphic subject matter that cause both his agent and longtime studio to avert their eyes from supporting it, forcing the Hitchcocks to mortgage their beloved Hollywood home in order to finance the film themselves. Talk about a scarily suspenseful adventure!

This movie has all the elements that make, not a perfect “Hitchcock film,” but a perfect film about Hitchcock and the making of Psycho: the advisory phantom of Ed Gein himself, backstabbing studio politics, Hitchcock’s eccentrically brilliant directorial craft, the famous shower scene, his trademark Hitchcock TV show, his infatuation with his blonde leading ladies, his less than earnest battle with corpulence, and, above all, his longstanding marriage to Alma Revel who was his confidante, advisor, editor and supporter in every film—right through Psycho—since their early days making British silent films together. The question of whether Hitchcock’s might finally acknowledge her irreplaceable role is another fine element of suspense.

The two actors—Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren—are expectantly excellent, especially Hopkins. One would think no one could convincingly portray the unique, inimitable Hitchcock, but you soon forget you’re watching anyone but the famous director himself.

All the dry wit and acerbic perceptions, the sense of fun and surprise you associate with Hitchcock are in this well-written movie.

The last three lines are the perfect capstone:

“You know, Alma, I will never be able to find a Hitchcock blonde as beautiful as you.”

“I’ve waited thirty years to hear you say that.”

“And that, my dear, is why they call me…the Master of Suspense.”

THE FLAT — A 98 year old grandmother dies in Tel Aviv. Her daughter, in her 70s, and her own older children and grandchildren go to clean out the apartment.

Among the old German furniture and bric-a-brac are discovered a huge and surprising cache of letters, photo albums and mementos harkening back to a pre-war Berlin where the grandmother and her traffic judge husband led a privileged life. Among the aging relics is a prominent Nazi newspaper from the late 30s whose banner headline announces the couple’s trip abroad to Palestine in the company of a high Nazi official.

The mother claims she never knew anything about that. Her parents never talked about their past life nor did she ever ask any questions. She herself lives only for the here and now. Her own apartment in Tel Aviv is neat as a pin: no clutter, everything in its place, not a thing that’s reminiscent of the past.

But the son evinces surprise and curiosity. The video he happens to be recording of the apartment cleaning becomes the movie we are watching as he decides to pursue that curiosity. What he discovers as he travels across Israel and to Germany to uncover his grandparents’ hitherto unrevealed life defies belief, leading to personal confrontations that will dispel complacency, reveal hard truths and alter lives on both continents.

This profound and haunting family mystery raises unfathomable questions and goes to places you couldn’t expect. It will have its intended effect if you don’t first read the spoilers on the back of the DVD cover.

Hank’s recommendations 02/26/13

hank_paperTHIS ONE SHOULD HAVE BEEN AN OSCAR CONTENDER

THE IMPOSTER — I read this story a year or two ago in the New York Times. The multi-festival award-winning documentary derived from that story, with archival footage, current interviews of the real people involved and effective dramatic re-enactments, was released just this month on DVD.

It’s about a 23 year old Frenchman who, in a phone call from a police station in Spain, convinces a grieving family in San Antonio, Texas, that he is their 13-year-old son who disappeared three years ago. Soon he is flown “home” for the long awaited, hope against hope reunion.

The film is also about investigation methods utilized (or not) by family members, the FBI and a canny, down home private detective named Charlie Parker whose independent take on the real identity of the claimant becomes as thrillingly arrived at as the outsider jazz music of his namesake. The detective’s revelatory theorizing even includes a HOMELAND spin on who the subject really might be.

The film starts out fascinatingly and gets better as it goes along, making a 90 degree turn into bigger and more disturbing lie. In effect, this is several movies in one.

There have been several fine films about imposters, including THE GREAT IMPOSTER (with Tony Curtis), Spielberg’s CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and CATFISH, the documentary from a couple of years ago about an elaborate fake internet identify that lures a group of young college men across country for a surprise encounter with the family that concocted it.

This increasingly gripping documentary plays like the dark side of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.

Hank’s Recommendations 01/29/13

hank_paperSEVEN PSYCHOPATHS — In this film by the Oscar-nominated writer and director of IN BRUGES, Martin McDonagh, Colin Farrell plays a struggling screenwriter who can’t get beyond his title, “Seven Psychopaths.” Until, that is, his ecccentric friends chip in to help him with the storyline and suggest some psychopathic characters—who may or may not be themselves. One of these friends, played by Christopher Walken, is a dognapper who steals pets and then returns them to the owner for the reward. One of his victims, unfortunately (though perhaps not for the screenplay), is a psychopathic crime lord played by Woody Harrelson (whose masterful role anchored the recent GAME CHANGE), who will kill anything in the way of getting his shih tzu back.

The film, in other words, is about how it got written, and it turns out it to be a very good script! From the surprising and funny opening scene, the running dialogue is clever and self-referential (Quentin Tarantino, anyone?). As far as who is a psychopath and thus deserves to be in the movie, prepared to be surprised! Harrelson, for sure, eats up the scenery and Walken, though somewhat long in the tooth, has still got that toothy grin and that springy grace in his step. Other cast members include Sam Rockwell and—treat among treats—Tom Waits. But, then, everything in this film is entertaining and often goes where you don’t expect it. Though expectedly violent, it has a broad pacifist streak; in the end it’s actually an anti-shoot-‘em up film. So don’t be disarmed by the title. Highly recommended.

GOD IS BIGGER THAN ELVIS — Oy, is this a movie! And I thought Elvis was king.

This pithy oft-requested Oscar nominated documentary raises more questions than it answers. But we learn a lot that’s intriguing: not only about how former B movie star, Dolores Hart—so pampered and prepped by the studio following her early co-starring roles in Elvis films—gave up acting to become a nun, but also about the dynamics of monastic life itself in Bethlehem, CT. (Spoiler alerts: one nun sports a nose ring; the nuns’ underwear, to judge by the clothes line, is quite colorful; the monastery, Hart opines, offers an opportunity for sexuality to go beyond the genital.) Hart not only gave up a promising career, she gave up her five-year engagement to a courtly and supportive man whom she apparently loved (he makes a surprising appearance near the end of this film). In order to find the security she most desired, she married God. One thing you can say about Hart: You’ve come a long way, baby!

Reminder: Film Screening and Discussion this Sunday, Jan. 6, with artist Winfred Rembert

This Sunday at 2 PM director Vivian Ducat will screen her feature-length documentary All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert.  A question-and-answer session with Ducat and Rembert will follow the showing of the film. The cover charge for this event is $5 and reservations are an absolute must—the event is almost sold out. The DVD of All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert is also available to purchase at Best Video for $17.98.

For more information, check out our previous post on this event.

January 6 screening date set for Winfred Rembert documentary

All_Me_Winfred_Rembert_DVDAll Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert is director Vivian Ducat’s first feature-length documentary. A native New Yorker, Ducat has directed, produced and written more than 20 long-format documentaries for broadcast. She spent the first part of her career in London, working for the BBC, directing films for series including The Story of English, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, Assignment (“Mr. Murakami Goes to Washington” and “Uncle Sam’s Last Stand”) and Locomotion. After returning to New York, Ducat produced programs for the WGBH series The Aids Quarterly with Peter Jennings, MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, the ABC News series The Century, and for the WGBH series, The American Experience (“Hawaii’s Last Queen,” narrated by Anna Deveare Smith) among other broadcast venues.

Ducat will screen All Me in the Best Video Performance Space on Sunday, Jan. 6, at 2 PM. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with director Ducat and the artist Winfred Rembert. The DVD of All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert is also available for purchase at Best Video for $17.98.

Winfred Rembert, a 66 year-old African American, grew up in Cuthbert, a town in the Southwestern corner of Georgia. Rembert was given away at birth to a great aunt. He spent much of his childhood as a field worker beside his great aunt in the cotton and peanut fields. When he could attend school, he loved drawing but not much else.

Attendance at a civil rights demonstration got him thrown in jail without charges or a trial. An escape over a year later resulted in a prison sentence, but only after Rembert had survived an attempted lynching.

He fell in love with his future wife, and with leather as an art medium, while serving seven years on Georgia chain gangs. Life and eight children intervened after prison; it was not until 1995 that Rembert began to carve, tool and then dye pictures on leather, in his studio in the front room of his home in New Haven, Connecticut.

Most of his colorful art depicts scenes and themes from African American life in segregated Cuthbert, GA and from the time he spent on those chain gangs. His work was exhibited at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2000 and a triptych about a lynching was acquired by Yale for their permanent collection. Rembert subsequently exhibited at various other venues.

His first major catalogued one-man exhibition was presented in New York in 2010 by Adelson Galleries in association with Peter Tillou Works of Art. Rembert and his family still live in New Haven’s inner city. In 2012, a traveling exhibition, a retrospective of Rembert’s art, was curated by the Hudson River Museum, where it showed from February to May. It is currently on exhibition at the Greenville Art Museum in Greenville, South Carolina, where it will be through August 2012.

For me information on All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, check out this April, 2012 story by New Haven Register Arts Editor Donna Doherty.

Watch the trailer for All Me: